Breaking Taboos: Mixing Sports and Politics with Team Darfur

The timing was purely coincidental. On Wednesday, July 10, came the news that dozens of armed men in SUVs and perhaps 200 men on horseback had attacked and killed seven United Nations peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan. The next day, I was scheduled to interview Joey Cheek, co-founder of Team Darfur, a coalition of Olympic athletes whose goal is to end the genocide in Darfur.

When Cheek phoned me, he sounded as upbeat as you might expect a college freshman to sound, although his voice and his language belied that impression. But he is hardly your typical college freshman. For one thing, he is an Olympic gold medalist in speed-skating. For another, he is 29 years old.

Photo of Joey Cheek courtesey of Genocide Intervention Network.

“I’ve reached the end of my freshman year at Princeton, which seems rather tragic for a man of my advanced years,” he joked. But the conversation quickly became more serious. “It’s terrible that people trying to keep peace are getting killed. It showcases why they need a robust protective force there. But that hasn’t happened,” Cheek said. “And these people who were attacked and killed had armed soldiers with them. Imagine those kinds of attacks on unarmed people, and you have what happens in Darfur all the time.”

What doesn’t happen all the time is an athlete speaking out on an international issue as knowledgeably, frequently, and effectively as Joey Cheek. Even rarer is for 380 more Olympic athletes from 56 countries to join in. But what impact they can have – and even how much impact they should try to have during the Games – is open to debate.

According to the latest United Nations estimate, five years of conflict in Darfur have claimed 300,000 lives, and more than 2 million people from Darfur are living in aid camps in nearby Chad. On July 14, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. But on July 26, the New York Times reported that members of the UN Security Council were debating a proposal to suspend the international prosecution amid signals that Russia and China would support it.

Cheek is well-acquainted with such political maneuvering. In late 2006, he visited Chad and China with actors George Clooney and Don Cheadle. They toured refugee camps and spoke with diplomats from China, which has extensive trade with Sudan – including the sale of arms to al-Bashir’s government.

“It was very frustrating,” Cheek recalled. “I was wrapped up in the glamour of it all. I thought, going with such prominent celebrities, we were going to get some big things done. We got to make our case to Chinese officials and they listened politely, but actually …” Cheek paused. “There hasn’t been zero movement. (China’s) rhetoric has changed some, and they have put some engineers in Sudan and provided some help to the UN peacekeeping force. But it is frustrating. You wonder sometimes, at what point does raising awareness become too little? Even that has its limits.”

But athletics is all about testing limits. As Cheek well knows.

At his press conference after winning the 500-meter race at the 2006 Turin Olympics, Cheek began his remarks by announcing that he was donating his $40,000 award to Right To Play, an international aid organization that focuses on the most disadvantaged children in the world. And he mentioned the crisis in Darfur.

Impressed teammates elected him to carry the U.S. flag into the closing ceremonies, Time Magazine named him one of its “100 people who shape our world,” and he received one of America’s classic sporting tributes – being featured on a Wheaties box. His donation inspired others. Sponsors and athletes teamed up to donate over $1 million to children in Darfur. In September, 2007, Cheek and Brad Greiner, a water polo player at the University of California-Los Angeles, decided to join forces and create Team Darfur. It now has a Washington headquarters, three full-time employees and a half-dozen volunteer interns.

While the Olympics are often seen as an apolitical activity, both individuals and governments have used the games as a venue for politics. In the Munich Games of 1972, Palestinian terrorists stormed into the Olympic village, triggering an episode that ended with the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes, five of the eight terrorists, and a policeman. In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the 1968 Games in Mexico City, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals and then ignited tremendous controversy when they raised gloved fists in a “black power” salute on the award platform.

Cheek doesn’t advocate anything so dramatic for the Beijing Games. However, Team Darfur is asking countries to call an Olympic truce during the Games. Cheek noted that such truces were traditionally held during the ancient games, and have been called as recently as during the Bosnian crisis in the 1990s. “They called a cease-fire to inoculate children, so there’s evidence of it working in the past,” Cheek said. “If something like that could happen in Darfur, we could do some real good.”

By rule, Olympic athletes are barred from dispensing “propaganda” in Olympic venues, and it seems clear that Olympic officials, not to mention the Chinese government, are eager to keep politics out of these Games’ equation. Earlier this year, Britain and Ireland tried to force athletes to sign contracts that prohibited them from addressing politics during the Games, only to back down when athletes and the public expressed their outrage.

“There is definitely pressure on athletes to fit in, and to not upset sponsors, their national team, and the United States Olympic Committee,” Cheek said. “I think the USOC has used the propaganda language as sort of a blunt instrument to blunt any criticism.” Cheek notes that the USOC can hide behind the language arguing that, “We’re not telling athletes what they should or shouldn’t say. We happen to think that staying positive in focus is just a better way to do business. We support athletes staying focused on the hundreds of thousands of people being hurt.”

Will such an approach yield any more Joey Cheeks? Don’t bet on it.

There are unwritten rules – some of them more powerful than Olympic rules – that also come into play. For Olympic athletes, a medal-winning showing can mean money – lots of money for some, but big boosts for nearly all of them considering how they have had to forsake careers for their athletic pursuits. Because the Olympics are only held every four years, these are literally chances of a lifetime for athletes who don’t have professional leagues offering them millions.

Even the biggest names – professionals who now compete in the Olympics – have economic incentive to be cautious. In 2007, National Basketball Association player Ira Newble asked his teammates on the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign a petition criticizing China for its Darfur policy. Some did. But not LeBron James, the team’s best player and one of the NBA’s top stars. James later said he wanted to study the issue before signing any petitions, but many commentators noted that James has a $90 million endorsement contract with Nike, which makes more of its shoes in China than in any other country and which will outfit the Chinese team in the upcoming Games.

Activists would love to get star athletes to back their causes. But for the most part, stars in professional sports like basketball and football tend to support favored causes with checks rather than activism. Which is not all bad. Money, after all, has its uses. And the sad truth is that many athletes are not all that aware of “real world” issues.

In his engaging book about playing pro basketball in several countries, Can I Keep My Jersey, Paul Shirley paints an unflattering portrait of most NBA players as ill-informed, poorly educated “guys interested in dumb girls, jewelry, and the advancement of their own careers.” My own experience covering pro and college sports for 12 years confirms Shirley’s assessment. This condition is not entirely the players’ faults. The intense focus, endless practice, and constant travel required to become a top-tier athlete is not conducive to developing social awareness. Nor is the insular existence imposed by coaches and agents who tend to regard their clients as commodities, not people. (Editor’s note: For an example of a socially conscious NBA player, look for a forthcoming interview with Washington Wizard’s player, Etan Thomas on FPIF in mid-August.)

As for the Olympics, some athletes believe the Games are simply the wrong place for political protest. Gary Hall Jr., a winner of 10 gold medals in swimming, said, “There’s a time and place for the issues and causes. The Olympic Games and politics don’t go together well.” This is a legitimate point of view. In fact, it can be argued that the Olympic ideals that allow the world to suspend politics for a few weeks every four years are an excellent way, in sports parlance, to lead by example.

In fact, Hall’s philosophy has virtually the same foundation as Cheek’s call for an Olympic truce. If the Games are politically neutral, is it appropriate to inject any political views into them, no matter how worthy the cause? If medal winners start using their press conferences to make political pronouncements, things could change quickly, probably not so much between the athletes themselves but between nations. Or between ethnic, religious, or political groups within nations, as we’ve seen this year with “Team Tibet” – an attempt to have Tibetan athletes participate in the games under their own flag.

Limiting athletes’ comments has some merit. Riots are nothing new for sports fans. Passions run high. It’s estimated the Beijing Games will be watched by 4 billion people around the world. The run-up to these Games, the Olympic Torch relay, repeatedly has been marred by protests over China’s rule in Tibet. Imagine such passions, and so many people watching, as an Afghani medal winner uses her press conference to accuse NATO of occupying her country and calls for people everywhere to wage jihad against NATO countries. Or as a Brazilian soccer player proclaims that capitalism has raped all of the Americas south of Denver, and it’s time for a workers’ revolution against any and all American governments. It’s not hard to envision such pronouncements triggering conflict far away from Olympic venues.

As for athletes who would like to speak out, they often find themselves in a double-bind. If they don’t say anything, people lament their lack of social conscience. But if they do, people question their competence. As Cheek learned.

“Everything that was being written about me was like ‘Oh, what a great guy.’ I was proud of that but what was absolutely crucial, I started saying, was that what the kids in Darfur really need is not being shot, not having their houses burned down, and their sisters and mothers being raped. That’s when the tone of reporting on me changed … there was an attitude of ‘Now you’re talking about politics. Who are you to be telling us about politics?’ One columnist really savaged me, saying I have more muscle than brains. After some shell-shock and reflection I realized that they weren’t attacking the argument, they were attacking me. And that was an education.”

Cheek has had quite an education the last two years, much of it far away from the Princeton campus. Parts of it, like his visit to refugee camps in Chad, will probably stick with him longer than what he learns in the classroom.

“These people have been driven out of their homes, they’re basically just squatting there, making do as best they can – these camps are huge, 40,000 or 50,000 people – and they’re getting some food, and a little space to sleep in, but there’s nothing to do and nowhere they can go,” Cheek said. “Growing up an American … you think that if you have any trouble you can always go home and your family will feed you or that you can move somewhere and start over. But these people can’t go anywhere. As Americans we don’t think about being in those circumstances. I walked away feeling like there was a rock in the pit of my stomach.”

Cheek decided to speak out, both as an active Olympian and afterward. He said his activism not only didn’t tarnish him in sponsors’ eyes but attracted more sponsorships. But for athletes, speaking out about political issues carries very real risks. A former Olympian once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” In 1967, facing a matter of conscience when his government’s law conflicted with his basic values, an Olympian refused to serve with U.S. forces fighting the Vietnam War. At the time, Muhammad Ali was heavyweight boxing champion of the world. But he was soon stripped of his titles by boxing authorities and convicted of evading the draft. He was not allowed to fight for three years, costing him millions of dollars during what should have been the peak of his career, and he had to fight his conviction all the way to the Supreme Court before it was overturned in 1971.

Unless Olympic and/or Chinese officials are able to outfit athletes with truly Draconian muzzles, whether to speak out at the Beijing Games will be each individual’s choice. Ultimately, whether we are athletes or not, it always is.

John Beckett, a journalist for nearly 40 years, now writes for his website, OpinionArtillery.org. He is the author of “Mission Accomplished: Michigan’s Basketball Miracle,” about the University of Michigan’s 1989 national basketball championship and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.